Arabic ethnic media promotes cultural identity in Europe

The recent emergence of ‘new media’ sources, mostly via satellite and the internet, has transformed the way in which information, particularly news, is communicated internationally. New research shows that it is precisely this richness and complexity of media sources that promotes feelings of cultural belonging among Islamic newcomers to Europe. The research makes recommendations to policy makers at the national and European level to recognise the role of media plurality in debates about citizenship.

Over three hundred Arabic news channels exist in Europe. Some of these are national channels, originating from a single Arabic country, and some are broadcast across several nations, known as transnational channels. Due to the ‘convergence’ of old and new media, both news sources are rapidly accessible in Europe via the internet and satellite. The Media & Citizenship research project, conducted by a consortium of five European universities (University of Utrecht, University of Bielefeld, Örebro University, University of Sorbonne-Nouvelle Paris-3, and London School of Economics and Political Science), investigated the role of Arabic language channels alongside EU national channels in the perception of citizenship among Arabic speakers in Western Europe.

Based on quantitative audience-derived data, the research represents a considerable step forward in methods of analysis. In the past, little quantitative information has been available about viewing demographics of Arabic language channels in Europe, since they do not rely on advertising revenue.

Data were gathered from over 2,500 questionnaires across Arabic speakers in six European capitals: Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, London, Berlin and Stockholm. A subset of 400 people was asked to record their viewing habits and preferences over the course of a week in a ‘media diary’. Participants also discussed their attitudes to different media sources extensively in focus groups held in each city.

Results showed that television was the preferred news medium for 70% of the Arabic speakers sampled. Only 20% relied on newspapers and internet-based news providers. Overall, the single most popular Arabic language channel was the transnational Al-Jazeera, followed by Al-Arabiya.

The vast majority of Arabic speakers (more than 90%) watched a mixture of EU national, Arabic national and Arabic transnational television channels to keep in touch with events in their native countries. Only 7.8% of people exclusively watched Arabic channels. These results offer evidence to counter the widely held concern that a multitude of Arabic channels diminishes the newcomer’s need to integrate into the host nation society. Typically, participants indicated that a multi-source approach offers them a balance of impartial information about news events alongside reaction and critical opinion from an Arab perspective.

Arabic speakers of North African origin (mainly Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian) typically watched EU national channels and Arabic channels from their home nation in approximately equal proportions. This reflected a strong feeling of cultural identity in both their home and host EU nations, known as ‘biculturalism’.

In contrast, Arabic speakers with Middle Eastern origins predominantly watched EU national channels and transnational Arabic channels, such as Al-Jazeera. This reflected an association with the worldwide Arab community in general, known as ‘pan-Arab nationalism’, which is largely independent of the country of origin.

As a result of their findings, Media & Citizenship proposed several key policy recommendations:

  • To clarify the law governing satellite delivered content - Existing EU law1 to regulate television content is not enforceable for satellite and internet delivered channels. While this may be of concern, it is critical that the plurality of media available to Arabic speakers is maintained.
  • To recognise the wide viewership of EU national channels – Media & Citizenship recommends that policy makers embrace the existence of a multitude of Arabic channels as a positive aspect of cultural integration and exchange. In doing so, this should temper any fear of a so-called ‘clash of civilisations’, sparked by extremist events in Europe and the United States.
  • A review of national citizenship tests - Increasingly stringent national citizenship tests, particularly in the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, are largely counterproductive to the EU vision of transnational citizenship of Europe, say the researchers. Since the evolution of European media allows a transnational framework of cultural integration, the project proposes that citizenship tests should reflect the same ideology by recognising the distinction between political, legal and cultural forms of citizenship.

The proliferation and globalisation of media sources has undermined national control of the news agenda. EU citizens have access to a wide range of media and may well adopt perspectives and consider issues independent of those set by national public media. This is not in itself a danger to a peaceful (transnational) society. The project has found that while Arabic speakers, with access to Arabic language television, do seek alternative explanations to those offered by Western European and US media, particularly in relation to Middle Eastern events, they also follow the mainstream media in Europe. What characterises this group is the interplay between media sources of precisely the type that EU policy, in promoting media pluralism, should applaud.

 

1 See: EU Directives 89/552/EC ‘Television Without Frontiers’ (TVWF) and 2007/65/EC Revision of TVWF. http://europa.eu/legislation_summaries/audiovisual_and_media/l24101a_en.htm

Media & Citizenship: Transnational television cultures reshaping political identities in the European Union (duration: 1/4/2008 – 31/3/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 3 “Major trends in society and their implications”, Research area 3.3 “Cultural interactions in an international perspective”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).

See: http://www.media-citizenship.eu/

Contact: Professor Christina Slade, christina.slade@city.ac.uk